After five years spent seeking out bars behind unmarked doors and through phone booths, New Yorkers might have you believe the faux speakeasy has lost its allure. But in Berlin, a young and liberal city where closing hours do not exist, back-alley bars are still very much a part of the landscape. Among them is Triobar, a hidden, guest list-only establishment that specializes in century-old spirits. The team is so scrupulous about its identity that the dozen-or-so-seat den has changed locations four times in the past eight years, making it nearly impossible for off-the-listers to come knocking on the door for a Caipirinha. The bartender probably wouldn’t make one anyway. Mike Meinke, Triobar’s keeper, staunchly believes in guarding their idea of classicism, without the slightest hint of irony.
According to Phillip Duff, the owner of Door 74 in Amsterdam and a Triobar regular, Meinke is a sort of self-made alchemist. “He’s extremely passionate and animated—often outspoken,” he says. “But in the sense of an archetypal bartender, he is an anomaly.” The first time Meinke mixed a cocktail he was 12. His mom outfitted his room with a bar when he was 14, and at 16 she let him start drinking.
“I was a bar freak. By 18, I had a 100-bottle home bar,” says Meinke. But he never thought about doing it as a job. So he became a financial consultant for a pharmaceutical company while amassing a collection of rare spirits. Eventually he realized there was no reason to remain in a profession he wasn’t passionate about, so he teamed up with two partners to create a private library for his alcohol collection.
Responding to an American patron’s request for a Sazerac, Meinke combined 110-year-old Cognac, 75-year-old rye, and 100-year-old absinthe. He charged 500 euros.
For being so well known and respected in the upper echelons of the bar world, Triobar is a bit of a ghost. In conversations with bartenders, it’s often referred to as more of an idea than a physical space. “I always wondered if it was a real bar; I’ve been to Trio events, but never the actual bar,” says CoCo Prochorowski, a Berlin native and a former bartender-manager of Experimental Cocktail Club. Meinke keeps the guest list small (reservations are limited to personal referrals and the extremely interested) because he wants to reserve the place as a sort of living room for connoisseurs. But he also wants to create an experience that everyday cocktails cannot, by allowing customers to actually encounter a classic drink exactly as they would have in, say, 1880.
Many of the drinks we think of as classics—Martinis, Daiquiris, Manhattans—tasted different a century ago. The formulas we drink now have been updated to suit the current palate and are captive to spirit formula revisions and the availability of ingredients. Even the citrus used in the early-20th century is distinct from what we use today.
Among other bygone curios, Meinke has amassed a dozen vintage Old Tom gins, a mystical beast amongst collectors. The spirit—a slightly-sweet style of gin—was an original ingredient in the Martinez cocktail, and Meinke’s Old Tom bottles range from 60 to over 100 years old. “Years ago, Old Tom gin was not as sweet as it is today,” says Meinke. “Sugar was too expensive, so fruit was used to create gentle sweetness.” This means that when guests taste Meinke’s Martinez, they’re experiencing, truly, what a Martinez might have tasted like a century ago.
Pulling from a collection of more than 1000 rarities—which he often sources with the help glass collectors—Meinke has recreated many of the drinks in the classic canon entirely from vintage spirits and liqueurs. Responding to an American patron’s request for a Sazerac, Meinke combined 110-year-old Cognac, 75-year-old rye, and 100-year-old absinthe. He charged 500 euros. A Vesper made with original formula Kina-Lillet, a rarity amongst liquor geeks, might cost 150 euros, while a Sidecar variation made with old Cointreau might cost 200. To some it may seem a flagrant waste of coin, but to Meinke, customers are paying for experience and knowledge. How many places can create moments and flavors from another era? Meinke’s cocktails are proverbial time machines.
From the outside, Triobar seems almost too precious to exist in a city like Berlin. “In Berlin, we have a saying: ist arm, aber sexy—’it’s poor, but sexy,'” says Prochorowski. “There is a sense of edge [in Berlin], and what makes a city great is diversity; sometimes you want to sit down and, instead of having a sausage and a beer, you want fine dining and drinking.” According to Prochorowski, Berlin has no qualms about welcoming seemingly disparate establishments—from seedy sex clubs to 12-course tasting menus—and Triobar seems to fit right into the mishmash that has helped establish Berlin as Europe’s entertainment frontier.
Despite the spectacle of Triobar—all ice diamonds and really old cocktails—it, and Meinke’s style, remain rather traditional and deeply rooted in the classics. There’s no waste. No theater. No mole bitters. And no Caipirinhas. “If someone can explain why they want a Caipirinha or a Sex on the Beach, and there’s a special wish behind it, maybe I would make one, but I think of Triobar like a French restaurant,” says Meinke. “You don’t go to a French restaurant and order pizza. They can make pizza, but you don’t go there for the pizza.”